The Coen brothers, Joel and Ethan, can make movies set just about anyplace, in any time period. But they love their ridiculous, wonderful movie business, and they love their big, silly comedies.
Even though each new Coen movie may feel totally different from those that came before, the new “Hail, Caesar!” recalls quite a few of their earlier works, especially the screwier ones such as “Barton Fink,” “The Hudsucker Proxy,” “O Brother, Where Art Thou?” and “Burn After Reading.”
“Hail, Caesar!” takes place mostly over a single day, sometime in the 1950s, as Eddie Mannix (Josh Brolin) handles the business of Capitol Studios in Hollywood.
He takes care of stars and other movie people who are in trouble.
The main trouble today is that star Baird Whitlock (George Clooney) has been kidnapped off the set of the studio’s new Biblical prestige project.
Meanwhile, a well-spoken director of fine dramas (Ralph Fiennes) requires a last minute replacement for his male lead, and the only option is good-natured cowboy actor Hobie Doyle (Alden Ehrenreich).
Twin gossip columnists (Tilda Swinton) are snooping around, and a star of underwater musicals (Scarlett Johansson) is pregnant and needs to repair her image.
The stars keep on coming. Frances McDormand appears as a film editor, Jonah Hill plays a reliable man for hire (better seen than explained), and his frequent co-star Channing Tatum performs a killer musical number (“No Dames”).
It’s a big, swirling movie, shot by the great Roger Deakins, full of movies and the joy of movies. The Coens reference light entertainments and prestige projects, both from Hollywood’s golden age and their own filmography.
They seem to be wondering just what entertainment actually is, and what it’s worth in life.
But, in the chaos, they have created, as they sometimes do, characters that seem a little distant. For example, Mannix is very cool, and great at his job, but to find out who he really is, the Coens have added on scenes showing him not working.
Unexpectedly, the lesser known Ehrenreich provides the movie’s biggest heart.
His cowboy is simple, humble, big-hearted and hard-working; his highlight comes when the studio sets him up with a date for the premiere of his latest Western. The date, with a Carmen Miranda-like Veronica Osorio, is delightful, and feels full of promise.
“Hail, Caesar!,” too, feels full of promise. It’s not as tightly constructed as some of the brothers’ other comedies, and not as moving as their masterpieces, but it was clearly made with love. And maybe, sometimes, that’s enough.
Three and a half stars
Starring Josh Brolin, George Clooney, Alden Ehrenreich, Channing Tatum
Written and directed by Joel Coen, Ethan Coen
Running time 1 hour, 46 minutes